New Forms of Revolution (Part 2): The Oaxaca Commune

In excerpts from the essay New Forms of Revolution (Mexico, 2013), Oaxaca-based writer Gustavo Esteva explores the different notions of power within the popular movement in Oaxaca, and speculates on the future on the current cycle of struggles.

Editor’s Note: In excerpts from the essay New Forms of Revolution (Mexico, 2013), Oaxaca-based writer Gustavo Esteva explores the different notions of power within the popular movement in Oaxaca, and speculates on the future on the current cycle of struggles.


Read Part 1

“Such revolution is an art. That is: it requires the courage not only of resistance but also of imagination.” – Howard Zinn.

“Survival of the human race depends on the rediscovery of hope as a social force.” – Ivan Illic

The world as we know it has come to an end. Everywhere the foundations for an unprecedented authoritarian regime are being put in place, to replace the current political and economic system, and to take advantage of the fear, chaos, and uncertainty that marks a transition to a new era. The Zapatistas in Chiapas and the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (APPO) in Oaxaca, along with many other political initiatives in various parts of the world, prefigure new forms of transformative struggle, as well as their outcome. These struggles are a determining factor in the current crisis.

The end of a historical cycle and its causes

The universal consensus on the conclusion of a historical cycle is broken when it comes to identifying the cadaver: what is ending? What cycle are we dealing with? While the illusion is still propagated that it is only one phase of an economic cycle and recovery is imminent, what is becoming increasingly clear is that economic cycles themselves are coming to an end, and thus, the American empire, the capitalist system, economic society, and the modern era.

Media, experts, and officials insist in propagating the illusion that it is simply one phase of prosperity of the economic cycle that has ended, and an equally classic recovery will soon begin. However, even they recognize the true profundity of the current crisis, equating it to 1929.

The economist and political scientist Leopold Kohr (1) warned for decades that rather than economic cycles, what we are currently living through are cycles of size, due to the massive scale of development of economic activities. The increasingly bigger remedies being applied fail to resolve the crisis and merely contribute to worsening the problem. To stabilize the financial system is not to resolve the crisis.

Immanuel Wallerstein has warned us that we have entered the final phase of capitalism. Although he said this phase could last another five, ten or even fifty years, some analysts believe that the process of extinction has already accelerated. Rather than the structural contradictions examined by Wallerstein, it would be well to consider the irresponsible behavior of capital since the end of the Cold War. George Soros has warned about market fundamentalists undermining the foundations of the existence of capitalism and these warnings are indeed becoming valid.

Wallerstein and many other analysts have announced the end of the American empire. Like all previous empires, its agonizing demise is turbulent and contradictory. As in other cases, the empire employs all its means to create the illusion that the current troubles are just a temporary stumble.

Foucault, Illich, and many other thinkers have argued that we could be approaching the end of economic society (capitalism and socialism) and the modern era. The philosophical and epistemological foundations of the Enlightenment have been undermined. The current period of chaos and uncertainty characterizes the passage towards a new era. The rationalities of that era are no longer useful in understanding what is occurring, let alone in building another reality, one that can not simply be a mere projection of the previous.

The current cycle of popular struggles face, alongside the usual difficulties, the increased authoritarianism of the powers that be, using various pretexts (such as international terrorism or migration) to strengthen its control over the population. At the same time, they face the theoretical and practical inertia of the “left” that insulates, confuses, or directly undermines new endeavors. In examining the case of recent struggles in Oaxaca, this article focuses on these difficulties in popular struggles.

The Demons of the Oaxaca Commune

From June to October 2006, there were no police in the city of Oaxaca (population 600,000), not even to direct traffic. The governor Ulises Ruiz and his functionaries met secretly in hotels or private homes; none of them dared to show up at their offices. The Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (APPO) had round-the-clock watch on all the public buildings and radio and TV stations that it controlled. When the governor began sending out his goons to launch nocturnal guerilla attacks against these guards, the people responded by putting up barricades. More than a thousand barricades were put up every night at 11 p.m., around the encampments or at critical intersections. They would be taken down every morning at 6 a.m. to restore normal traffic. Despite the attacks, there was less violence in those months (fewer assaults, deaths and injuries, or traffic accidents) than in any similar period in the previous 10 years. Unionized workers belonging to APPO performed basic services like garbage collection.

Some observers began speaking of the Oaxaca Commune, evoking the Paris Commune of 1871. Oaxacans responded, smiling: “Yes, but the Paris Commune lasted only 50 days and we’ve already lasted more than 100.” The analogy is pertinent but exaggerated, except in terms of the reaction that these two popular insurrections elicited in the centers of power. Like the European armies that crushed the communards who had taken over all the functions of government, the Federal Preventive Police of Mexico, backed by the army and the navy, were sent to Oaxaca on October 28, 2006, to try to control the situation. On November 25, 2006, those forces conducted a terrible repression, the worst in many years, with massive violation of human rights and an approach which can be legitimately described as state terrorism. The operation—which included imprisonment of the supposed leaders of the movement and hundreds of others—was described by the International Commission for the Observation of Human Rights as,“a juridical and military strategy…whose ultimate purpose is to achieve control and intimidation of civil population.” For the authorities, this strategy would dissolve APPO and send a warning to all social movements around the whole country.

APPO remains a mystery, even for those who are part of it. The distortions introduced by the media and by some participants in APPO, who were using it to promote their own political and ideological agendas, exasperated the confusion. Furthermore, its innovative character is a challenge to understanding the nature, meaning, and implications of this strange political animal. (For further reading on this enormously complex situation, see: Arellano and others 2009, Davies 2007, de Castro 2009, Denham 2008, Esteva 2008 and 2009 a and c, Giarraca 2008, Lapierre 2008, Martínez 2006, and Osorno 2007).

From the day of its birth, all the demons that habitually beset what we usually call the left also beset the APPO. Like bees to honey, it attracted all sorts of groups and organizations that, like parasites, tried to direct and control the movement with their own agendas and obsessions. It was difficult to distinguish those activists from the countless infiltrators sent by the authorities to aggravate the role generally performed by the sectarian left: to disperse, divide, confront, isolate, and to create violence within the social movement.

The APPO disappeared as quickly as it had appeared. It left a quarrelsome atmosphere in Oaxaca, mixing anger and frustration with a sense of defeat. But APPO also left a sediment of experience expressed in everyday attitudes throughout the social and political fabric of the state.

When the Supreme Court of Justice was asked how to help restore constitutional order in Oaxaca, it created a commission of inquiry that said: “We cannot allow arbitrary arrests and torture of prisoners to become regular and normal in our country…The people of Oaxaca lived through, and are perhaps still living through, a state of emotional and legal uncertainty … it makes sense then that people feel they live in constant fear of the authorities and the unlimited use of police force, to the extent of ignoring human rights under our legal framework.” (La Jornada, 14/06/07). The UN Human Rights representative noted that respect for human rights is not a priority for the Mexican government. Emilio Alvarez Icaza, President of the Human Rights Commission of the Federal District of Mexico City, said that there are “no controls on police actions, and a discourse is developing that anything goes in order to combat crime” (Proceso 1652, 19/06/08). Participating in social movements is, for the authorities, a crime. Thus, not only people from Oaxaca live in emotional and legal uncertainty, but citizens all over the country.

A sense of limits and proportion

In the ferment of popular mobilization, in the intoxication of numbers (up to 800,000 people marched in the capital of Oaxaca), in the excitement of the extraordinary behavior of ordinary men and women, to the astonishing ability to successfully self-govern, to the radical novelty of the APPO itself, we lost a sense of our own limits and of proportion. A general sense of popular sovereignty occurred — the art of governing practiced by the people themselves—that probably reached its height with the victory at Todos los Santos on November 1, 2006, when the popular movement held its ground in the biggest open showdown between police and civilians in the country’s history: some 15,000 people, armed with sticks and stones defeated 4,000 well-armed policemen. After several hours of confrontation, the authorities realized that only an immense slaughter would defeat the popular resistance and the police gave the order to withdraw.

That ebullient mood made us blind to understanding that the federal government could not give victory to a popular insurrection like APPO. As governor Ulises Ruiz shrewdly argued, if people learned to overthrow state governors in the street, then other governors would fall and eventually, the President. Considering this, the federal government was willing to pay any political price to prevent that precedent from being set.

Our work for four months—like the occupation of radio stations and government offices, and the autonomous capacity to self-govern everyday life—could not continue indefinitely. Also the political environment created by the federal election results (when the left-leaning PRD narrowly failed to take office) made it impossible to topple Ulises Ruiz.

The government, in fact, seemed willing to offer almost anything…except the exit of Ruiz. It is conceivable that, under these circumstances, the APPO could have been able to negotiate conditions to ensure the subsequent exit of Ruiz, as well as many other things. But the APPO negotiators could not agree on these terms: and they were also cornered. The pressure from ‘below’ was very clear: any agreement that did not include the fall of the governor would have been seen and experienced as a betrayal.

Again and again, in popular struggles, we lose the sense of proportion and our own limits, and victories become defeats. It is important to understand how we arrived at this unfortunate state, commonly used by the infiltrators to push a movement over the cliff.

The Obsession of Power

The struggle against the state is usually a struggle for the state: it is to conquer it, to seize its institutions, and to use state power for certain political and ideological purposes. This sense of struggle tends to be corrosive during the struggle itself, as well as in the case of victory.

Two forms of self-destruction emanate from this peculiar obsession for state power. The first is well known: corruption. All ethical sense disappears. The ideals that forged the original initiative are gradually dissolved in practice. Taking power, which is initially defined as a simple means towards those ideals, gradually becomes the end. And having separated means and ends—reduced to the seizing of power—they are used to justify all means, including treason, collaboration, complicity, every kind of dishonesty, impunity, and a cynical lack of integrity.

“We think,” said Subcomandante Marcos in 1996, “that you have to rethink the problem of power, to not repeat that formula which says that in order to change the world it is necessary to take power, and once in power we will organize everything in a way that is best for the world, that is, the way that is the best for me since I am in power. We thought that if we conceived of a change in the way power is seen, the problem of power, proclaiming that we do not want it—this would produce another way of doing politics and other kind of politics, other human beings that do politics differently from politicians of the entire political spectrum. (EZLN 1996, 69).

For the Zapatistas, the question is not who is in power, or how any person, group, or party achieved a position of power (through elections or any other means), but the very nature of the system of power within the nation-state, as a structure of domination and control. In drawing a line to separate themselves from the guerilla tradition, the Zapatistas show that such traditions always postpone the question of the role of the people.

“There is an oppressive power, that which decides for society from above; a group of enlightened people who decide to run the country properly and displaces another group from power, takes power and also makes the decisions for society. For us this is a struggle of hegemonies… One cannot reconstruct the world, nor society, nor the nation-states now destroyed, upon a dispute that consists of who is going to impose hegemony upon society.” (Subcomandante Marcos, March 2001)

From the most ferocious dictatorships to the purest of democracies, the nation-state has been, and is, a structure to dominate and control the population…in the end to bring it to the service of capital, using its legal monopoly of violence. The state is the ideal collective capitalist, guardian of those interests, and operates as a dictatorship even in the most modern democratic states.

Comparisons are made between the Oaxaca and Paris communes, but the communards of Paris were, unlike APPO, able to protect the social relations from attempts of domination and control. Within APPO there was a continual confrontation between those who sought to dominate and control the movement. As part of that confrontation we blindly went into the trap of November 25, but before that we had already fallen into our own trap, in the passionate obsession with power, and it was the paltry power to control a meeting in order to impose a minor decision or expel a comrade.

Legacies of the APPO

The main challenge left by the demise of the The Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca is for us to respect the character of the pulse that defines it: to create a truly horizontal organizational structure, adjusted to the nature of the movement, capable of respecting the autonomy of its nuclei, and at the same time facilitate the continued exercise of mutual solidarity. This impulse was at the origin of the movement but not achieved in 2006. It is about forging decentralizing mechanisms: to be a network when we are apart, and an assembly when we are meeting together (as stated in the National Indigenous Congress), instead of pretending that we are in assembly all of the time, or that it is a group of supposed representatives or delegates.

Debate has focused on whether the uprising of 2006 was merely a popular revolt—a rebellious outbreak that was extinguished as quickly as it—or a genuine social movement, an expression of past initiatives and experiences. A genuine social movement in the sense of a convergence of the multiple movements that preceded it, a contemporary sociological and political creation produced by the appearance of a sudden and spontaneous movement of movements that persists in a latent form and can be activated at any time. The question is whether APPO existed in 2006 as part of a revolt that has since disappeared, or if it has changed its status as a movement to a latent, potential form.

APPO is probably both. In 2006 it took the form of a popular revolt and was really a spectacular eruption of discontent. The repression of November 25 and its aftermath quashed the eruption, but the force of the volcanic magma continued to boil in the social bowels: all attempts to co-opt, manipulate, or repress it failed. Moreover, traces of the lava that overflowed during the uprising are to be found everywhere and have spread widely within and beyond the Oaxacan state.

On the other hand, the revolt itself was only one of many expressions of the numerous social movements in Oaxaca—both those emerging from the Oaxacan social fabric and those which are local expressions of movements or initiatives that have a national and international scope. These movements are articulated and disarticulated continuously. The 2006 revolt would have been one of its most extensive and spectacular expressions.

The question of characterizing the APPO is not a theoretical but a practical matter. From its birth, two political and ideological currents were strongly expressed within APPO. Each one attempted to print its stamp on the APPO, leading to endless debate and little agreement.

For this and other reasons, the APPO has not yet come into existence: neither of the conflicting positions were ever consolidated. The APPO was not “we are everyone”; nor was it all that we were and we were not all that it was.

The first current within APPO focused on the “seizure of power” and was comprised of local organizations or local sections of national organizations and political parties. It is a current that seeks to seize the state apparatus and adopts a Leninist style of political action—a vertical and disciplined structure capable of leading the masses, as much in the conquest of power as in the exercise of social engineering once they have taken control. The increasing use of the term “popular power” and its slogan “all power to the people” hides the deeply authoritarian nature of this approach, which is based on a vertical structuring of political action and its outcome. In 2006, this current promoted the idea of a constituent congress for the APPO, to give it organizational form, like a political party, and in order to define its political program. Someone or other would be in charge of a specific group of leaders, and from there they would begin to lead the mass movement and take power. This would represent the constitution of the vanguard. Activists from this current are currently active in electoral politics and have adopted formal democracy as a central strategy of their political action. They resort to direct action (occupation of government offices, road blockades, etc.) to pressure the authorities and further their cause. In terms of tactics, as a pretext to mobilize, they attach great importance to the economic struggle, requiring capital or the state to satisfy specific demands. They have two kinds of  demands:

  • Some refer to the interests of certain groups. For example, better wages or working conditions for union members or employees in general, or, public programs of support for specific sectors like farmers or small traders.
  • Others concern the interests of society as a whole, such as education, health, communications, or the environment; demands for Oaxaca or Mexico in general, or for a certain community or municipality.

On the other hand, some members of this current are occasionally inclined to follow “the armed path” as a strategy to seize power, when they consider the electoral route closed, or as a strategy of “surprise attack” when taking control of the state apparatus seems possible without going through the electoral route.

The current tried to impose this kind of orientation and style on APPO from the very beginning, but was confronted at every step by another radically different current. Highly heterogeneous in composition and attitudes, this other current emanated from the indigenous peoples of Oaxaca, and not from some ideology or political party. This current came together around a deep distrust of top-down political action, a persistent resistance to vertical and centralized organizational structures, and disillusionment with the electoral process, formal democracy and the existing institutions. With some hesitation, and in more or less vague ways, this current was trying to shape the political project of the indigenous peoples of Oaxaca for the first time.

This political project appeared spontaneously as a rejection of the state presidency of Ulises Ruiz, and as an expression of the widespread discontent and growing concern about the crisis. It was born with great uncertainty, as a simple projection of the indigenous communities’ social existence and political organization. It hinged on the assembly, but did not see the assembly as a mere mechanism of decision-making or a ritual exercise, but as a central component of the struggle itself and the political regime that could emanate from it. The assembly was seen as a device that prevented the separation of means and ends and maintained autonomy throughout the process.

The first current had dozens of representatives, highly articulate and visible spokespeople, and a few professional activists devoted to organizational tasks. The second current, however, lacked a precise and articulated expression. Instead it manifested itself as an impulse emanating from the social base, particularly indigenous communities, and as a way of thinking and experiencing the world in general and the struggle in particular, finding an echo and acceptance among most participants of the movement.

In the wake of the government repression in November 2006, the two currents responded in very different ways. Some APPO activists, alongside a group of young people, formed Oaxacan Voices Constructing Autonomy and Freedom (VOCAL), a space that was clearly created as a rejection of the top-down, centralized practices that they saw within APPO, and to encourage the expression of initiatives clearly affiliated with the second current. Some organizations in the first current, meanwhile, formed an electoral front outside of the APPO.

In short, it is not possible to characterize the APPO as an organization, or a movement in a strict sense. Attempts to turn it into a political organization with a centralized structure failed. Nor did it become a movement of movements. The movements that converged in APPO only did so circumstantially—to participate in a march, for example—and maintained their autonomy in taking initiatives. And that is how it has been up until today: APPO has been but one possibility of many, an attempt that has not yet crystallized. Despite not yet having a real existence, it is not a ghost. That which we still call APPO expresses the vigor and vitality of a tendency deeply rooted in the people of Oaxaca, which is just finding its opportunity to exist at a time of enormous importance to Oaxaca, Mexico, and the world.

For APPO to realize its full potential as an assembly of assemblies, two conditions are required:

First, all Oaxacan people, from indigenous communities to mixed barrios and all the groups that make up the current social fabric of Oaxaca, should be constituted in assemblies that can properly express the collective will of the people; and second, from these assemblies, explicitly designated people should participate in the general assembly of APPO in order to come to agreements. The collective assembly should mandate the terms and conditions of the agreements, and not the individual representatives.

There is still a long way to go for APPO to really become an assembly of assemblies. The current effervescence of Oaxacan society, accentuated by crises, is naturally tending towards this constitutive exercise. One clear seed of APPO has been the formation of regional structures, created in 2006, that continue to function today. Within local resistance movements against mines, roads, dams, and other mega-projects, one can see a change in focus from the traditional struggle for land through seeking government support, to the autonomous defense of territory. It is an exercise in popular sovereignty which generally uses the assembly as an expression of the collective will and as a mechanism that defines the style of struggle. Although it requires a great effort, these are the measures that will have to be taken in order to create a new APPO, one that brings everyone together to make decisions jointly and, simultaneously, bring this shared dream to life.

Towards Autonomy

In Oaxaca, however, there remains a difference between those who still trust in representative democracy and fight for changes in its procedures in order to replace the current management of the crisis, and those who have lost all illusions about it. The latter are convinced that the regime is a structure of domination and control within the nation-state, forcing voters to choose their oppressors through flawed procedures. To avoid being trapped in this contraposition, some groups are exploring ways of exercising participatory democracy that can be seen as an example during the transition, and provide training for citizens who have lost their capacity for self-management. For example, participatory budgeting techniques are practiced in urban neighborhoods and rural communities, in which citizens can allocate public resources, define public work projects and programs, and monitor their implementation. This kind of exercise can prepare people for radical democracy, where the people fully assume the apparatus of decision-making.

Autonomous endeavors are being undertaken throughout Oaxacan society with an increasing sense of indignation and urgency. Meanwhile, amid rampant corruption and an openly cynical authoritarianism, federal authorities are moving forward in their attempts to sell off the entire country and its people. In its desire to govern through the market and the security forces, they are employing all the resources of the state, with the complicity or acquiescence of the political classes, in an exercise that involves increasing control of the population, systematic destruction of civil rights and freedoms, criminalizing social movements, and enclosing or suffocating autonomous spaces.

-San Pablo Etla, Septiembre 2013

1. Leopold Kohr is a 20th-century Austrian academic whose work inspired both modern political anarchism and the Green movement. The guiding principle of Kohr’s work was, like that of his friend the economist E.F. Schumacher, “Small is beautiful”. His book “The Breakdown of Nations” first published in 1957, develops his theory of the optimal size of polities: “There seems to be only one cause behind all forms of social misery: bigness.” Size was the root of all evil: “Whenever something is wrong, it is too big.”


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Original Essay in Spanish: